On this history trail: Pioneers of science and astronomy from the Pocklington area

Thomas Cooke, scientific instrument maker from Allerthorpe.
Thomas Cooke, scientific instrument maker from Allerthorpe.

There is a remarkable number of locally produced astronomers, scientists, mathematicians and sundial makers from the Pocklington area in the early 19th century.

I have often wondered why this should be, particularly as none of them seem to have had any classical or formal education.

Thomas Cooke (1807-1868) was probably the most well-known. Born in Allerthorpe and the son of a Pocklington shoemaker. He started as a teacher of mathematics to the farmers’ sons of the Pocklington district, and only a year later he was able to open a village school at Bielby. He continued to teach others by day and learn himself by night, and soon moved his school from Bielby to Skirpenbeck. When he was 30, he set up a shop in Stonegate, York for the manufacture of telescopes, spectacles and optical instruments using a £100 loan from his wife’s uncle. By the end of his life, in 1868, he had put Britain at the forefront of optical engineering in Europe. Not only did Cooke make the world’s best and most accurate telescopes, but shortly before his death he established by some distance the world’s biggest telescope.

Barnard Cooke (1813-1887) was a clockmaker and optician. He was the younger brother of Thomas also born in Allerthorpe. He married Rachel Milner from Skirpenbeck in York in 1842. Barnard, who was listed in the 1841 and 1851 census as an optician, worked with his brother before establishing his own business in Hull. The first record of Barnard Cooke in Hull was in the 1863 directory in which he is operating as an optician operating from Saville Street as B. Cooke & Son. The firm is still operating today.

William Rogerson (1796-1853), born and raised in Pocklington, began his career as a teacher. In 1826 he was appointed one of the calculators of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, by the Astronomer Royal John Pond, and worked with Professor Faraday, eminent pioneer of magnetism and electricity.

William Richardson (1796-1872) was born in Pocklington, and originally a blacksmith. He was recommended for assistant to the Astronomer Royal at Greenwich by the instrument maker Troughton. When Pond took on two extra staff at Greenwich in 1825, he acted on the advice of his assistant William Richardson and recruited his Pocklington friend William Rogerson together with Thomas Ellis who came from nearby York. Their arrival meant that for the next 20 years, half of the astronomical assistants working for the Astronomer Royal were Yorkshire men. Richardson was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society for his investigation into the Constant of Aberration. Scandal later surrounded Richardson who was arrested in Pocklington in January 1846 and charged in February, along with his daughter, of murdering their incest child – a boy who had been born on 17 September 1845, and who had died 10 days later. Both were put on trial for murder at the Old Bailey on 11 May 1846, where the case received both local and national coverage. Both were acquitted by the jury. After the trial Richardson returned to Pocklington, where he lived until he died.

John Smith (1807-1895), of Bielby, who also distinguished himself as a maker of sundials. He was a remarkable man in his way. From his boyhood he took great interest in astronomy, meteorology, dialling, and mechanics, and spent much of his spare time in a carpenter’s shop, where he made a pedometer for his father’s waggon. He left signs of his handiwork behind him on Bielby chapel, and after living for several years as a farmer in the East and North Ridings, removed to South Stockton, where he devoted himself to astronomical pursuits, including the construction of sundials, and the publication of a meteorological almanack. John Smith lived to the age of 88, and died at South Stockton in 1895.

William Watson (1784-1857) was a map maker and sundial maker from Seaton Ross. At Dial Farm in Seaton Ross William’s farmhouse was covered in sundials and created sundials in many local places. He had an obsessive interest in the recording of facts and observations. He had his own astronomical observatory and is known to have held meetings in his house with his friends including Thomas Cooke which is documented in his journals.

In 1847 in Pocklington “The Pocklington Institute for improvement in Science and Literature” was founded and they met in the Odd Fellows Hall in Union Street. Regular lectures included one given in 1849 on the science of electricity.

On the evening of 21 January, 2016, at 7.30pm in the old courthouse, George Street, The Pocklington and District Local History Group will hold an evening of short talks of which one of the topics will be on the astronomers of the Pocklington area.